The fashionable Italian man, he’s all about sprezzatura
“That guy,” I say to my niece, “has hair just like Tomy’s.”
We’re standing in the Piazza del Popolo in Pesaro. It’s the long mid-afternoon gap between lunchtime and the hour stores will re-open, a sunny day in November. A few women glide across the piazza on bicycles, while this guy, probably 20 something, strides past us, his black hair buzzed on the sides and back of his head, a shock of thick plumage sticking up on top.
“Half the guys his age in Pesaro look like that,” she says with a laugh.
Black frame glasses, a few days growth of beard, and the hair, a thick hedge on top.
“Half the guys his age in Italy look like that,” she adds.
Tomy is my wife’s cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend. He has a shop that sells fresh pasta, cheeses, olive oil, truffle honey, chocolate spreads; assorted very good stuff. Before food he worked in men’s fashion. While you talk to him in his shop, he continuously looks past you and checks the windows in the front of the store, waving at fashionable people as they walk by. My niece is right. Half the guys he waves at look just like him.
“It’s a young guy cut,” I say.
“You weren’t thinking about it, were you?” my niece asks.
“Not for a minute.”
I’ve had a few haircuts in Italy. None of them have made me happy.
Some years ago I went to Simone, a guy who cuts my wife’s hair. My wife loves Simone. One year he’s bald, another year he has kind of a butch cut. One year he has a goatee trimmed close to his face, another year he has scruff. When she goes in the shop, he hugs her and kisses her cheeks, then he comes outside, shakes my hand and kisses my cheeks. He asks, Tutto bene? “Everything okay?” Every year, I am able to say 2-3 more things in Italian. I like lunch! I drive a Fiat. Do you think it will rain?
I didn’t really need a cut that year. I wasn’t in any immediate peril. I just thought, Why not? When you are an American in Italy, you are perpetually conscious of the fashion edge they have on us. Especially in Pesaro, where it is not so much an edge as a precipice. I don’t want to work as hard as they do at looking good; neither do I want to look conspicuously lazy or malevolently sloppy. That year I just sort of gave in. A haircut, I thought, could be mildly transformational.
The problem was twofold. How would I tell Simone what I wanted him to do? Take a little off the ears, I’d prefer you didn’t thin the back, I need enough hair in the front to tame my cowlick. Haircut-speak is pretty nuanced. I asked my wife, “What’s the word for cowlick?” Ciuffo, she said.
The second problem was not getting the cut everyone else wanted, the fashion cut.
That day, after we kissed, slapped shoulders, and established tutto bene, Simone got me into the chair. We looked at me in the mirror.
“Ciuffo,” I said, pointing at the lock of hair above my right eye.
He smiled and nodded, obviously not yet sure what I wanted.
“No ciuffo,” I said, to clarify. He gave me a searching look. He made a snipping gesture with the two fingers on his scissor hand. Did I want him cut the ciuffo off? I answered by making the same snipping gesture with my hand, then emphatically wagged an index finger, which means, in Italian, Don’t even think about it. He said something very fast, little of which I undertstood. As I often do, I shook my head in the affirmative and feigned understanding.
Next I grabbed the hair on the back of my head with both hands. “Non troppo magro,” I said. Not too thin.
He started to laugh. He patted his stomach. He said he liked lunch too.
Wrong kind of thin.
He moved around behind me and looked at my hair in the back, ruffled it a little bit. I began to think we had an understanding. “Facciamo cosi’,” he said. Here’s what we’ll do. There followed a long explanation. I shook my head in the affirmative and feigned understanding.
“Okay,” he said. In English!
I was outsourced briefly to a shampoo station, then delivered to Simone’s chair.
He cut. I watched. There was little barber banter, which was both kind of awkward and a relief. In a few minutes time I had used up my new Italian on him. It’s foggy. Last night I ate good cheese. I slept well. He cut, and as I watched I began to think, This is not going to be okay. A lot of my hair kind of went flying. I put my best face forward. I nodded approval. What choice did I have? He cut, combed, sprayed some product on my head, brushed and blew my hair to its logical, if unfortunate conclusion. It was the default cut, the cut young guys had that year, thin in the back, thin above the ears, thin on top, and a sort of spear of hair in front, pointing down at the forehead. Up there above my right eye, he had liberated my cowlick.
“Okay?” he said.
My wife met me coming out of the shop.
“Oh, my,” she said.
“I know,” I said. The cut was transformational, not in a positive way.
For a few days, every window I walked past, every mirror I looked in was followed by that jolting moment of ir-recognition. Who is that guy? An imposter. Worse, a failed impersonation of an imposter.
Not far from Pesaro is the town of Urbino, where fifteenth century humanist Baldassare Castiglionie, in his book The Book of the Courtier, celebrated the concept of sprezzatura, which is translated as “studied nonchalance.” In sprezzatura the individual demonstrates in attitude and action that he is “the total master of self, society’s rules, and even physical laws…, unable to err.”
On the street over the following days, I was acutely aware of sprezzatura, of local people my age who looked better than me, way better, without giving it a second thought. Late one afternoon, my wife and I had apperitivo with my niece.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” she said.
I pointed at my forehead. QED.
“Let me try something, “ my wife said. She reached out and swept my hair to the left, then she swept it to the right. She started brushing at it, swatting it.
“Didn’t you tell Simone what to do?”
“In so many words.”
A couple sitting at the table next to us leaned toward each other and spoke quietly. I imagined them saying, “What happened to that guy’s hair?” The gentleman, maybe seventy years old, had short slate gray hair, correctly cut, perfectly fitted to his head. He wore a snug light blue sweater over a long sleeve shirt, gray slacks, a scarf cinched around his neck. He was so well put together. He made it look so easy to wear those socks and those beautiful shoes. How did he do it?
In The Rumpus, Lauren Cerand writes, “I have a theory that elegant people have an aura of impenetrable private sadness, and that good taste and impeccable manners are life’s consolation.” Well, maybe. On the other hand, that night, if anyone had reason to be sad…
The waiter brought them an evening espresso. They stirred sugar into their cups and sat reading the newspaper for a few more minutes. Then the couple got up and slowly left the bar, all fashionable and correct, effortless and nonchalant.
A few minutes later the three of us followed them out.
I brought up the rear, temporarily, in all likelihood irredeemably chalant.